THE STRUGGLE FOR STRENGTH IN A CULTURAL DIVIDE – AN ASIAN FEMALE PERSPECTIVE
By Karen Maquilan
Powerlifting has become a growing phenomenon for women around the world. The desire to be physically strong and to defy social and cultural definitions of “femininity” has been a fiery catalyst for women to push aside their insecurities and venture out into the traditional “men’s club” of the gym floor – the weight room. At times, a woman’s journey for strength and self-discovery may also be spotted with stories of stigma and backlash that can be specifically sourced from one’s own ethnic background.
As a female lifter of Filipino descent, I had experienced stigma from friends and family with my quest for strength. I was curious if there were other Asian lifters who have similar stories. As I interviewed a few fellow Asian powerlifters, I discovered that although we may have been raised in different ethnic backgrounds, our stories seemed to overlap and fuse like yarn on tapestry. I discovered three topics that appeared time and again: 1) the woman’s role in Asian society; 2) Asian feminine beauty; and 3) misconceptions of female reproductive processes.
In most Asian cultures, a woman’s role in society is considered to be beneath a man’s role – socio-cultural customs tend to favor patriarchal hierarchies where men are considered the head of the household. Women are expected to accept the role of a second-class citizen, even within the family. Inequalities between men and women are predisposed due to cultural norms – housework and caretaking abilities are delegated to women, while men are tasked with being the primary breadwinners of the family.
In contrast, powerlifting essentially levels the playing field of these inequalities, as strength is considered a predominantly male-driven trait in Asian society. When women are driven to lift as much heavy weight as men, it is considered an act to defy cultural norms.
According to Tina Tang, a Chinese-American powerlifter, personal trainer and founder of IronStrongJewelry.com, “Powerlifting makes me feel strong as f***. [I] have never fit the Asian mold of quiet, lady-like and demure so this choice of fitness suits me perfectly!”
Tina’s description of the “ideal Asian woman” accurately hits the mark - in typical Asian society, women are revered as elegant, dainty, graceful, and submissive – the complete opposite of what female powerlifters aim to achieve. Ideal body image in typical Asian societies veer towards to the extreme in comparison to their US counterparts - a woman with a BMI of 23 is considered overweight in some Asian societies. (Chen, 2002).
In both American and Asian media, stereotyped characterizations of the exotic “China doll” are often used to depict a “submissive” Asian female (such as in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Pitch Perfect”, to name a few). (Henderson, 2015) The struggle to fight these biases within one’s culture can seem discouraging, but can help one’s perseverance to continue with the pursuit for strength.
Take for example, Ariella Wagner’s experience, who identifies as half-Chinese-American:
“I have received comments from my family, primarily on my mother’s side, that I was ‘too muscular’, and that I would be pretty if I was softer, and more feminine…
For a long time, my mother did not support my decision to lift. She argued it would make me un-feminine and I would have trouble finding a significant other who accepted my ‘size’ and who would ‘have more muscle’ than me. I decided to continue pursuing powerlifting despite the backlash, and avoided discussing it with her.
At first it was certainly a challenge in our relationship, but after she attended my first meet, she commented less about how lifting affected my appearance.”
In Mabelle Bong’s experience (who identifies as Indonesian-Chinese American), it seems that the backlash perpetrates more from women than from men in her family.
The stereotype for slender femininity seems to be reinforced and mandated by women, masked as cautionary warnings rather than insults. One can also observe that this perspective is interestingly not extended to men:
“In the beginning it was really difficult and I had a lot of extended family who were very against [me powerlifting]…I think the more prominent perspective for me was [when]…the women in my family who are more traditional…tried to express concern [where] I would get too muscular or I’d get hurt, and then I would point out,
‘Well you never said that to the men in the family.’”
In other instances, the backlash can extend to one’s limited understanding of powerlifting and a woman’s ability to conceive. Old-world misconceptions of female physiology that lifting heavy can cause miscarriages or injuries to a fetus have been prevalent in many cultures.
Jennifer Kim-Luo, who is Korean-American, briefly touched upon the backlash she faced when she decided to train for a recent powerlifting meet while pregnant:
“Recently, I find a lot of my conversations relating around powerlifting in a more questioning manner, particularly because I’ve continued it throughout pregnancy…The best I can do is to continue providing exposure to what powerlifting means in the context of myself.”
I can also recall a specific incident when my mother was watching me lift at our local gym, and she hollered a cautionary warning at me in Tagalog: “Child! My goodness, don’t lift that heavy barbell or your uterus will drop and you can’t have kids!” Although this anecdote has a humorous aspect to it, it also leads to a dangerous misconception that women’s bodies are weak. People forget that they are not just strong, but adaptable to change, and able to withstand the rigorous bouts of training for competitive powerlifting.
Society may force men and women to emphasize our differences – both anatomically and emotionally – but, the bottom line is that we are still the same: we sleep, eat, have sex, dream, poop, inspire, aspire, and perspire like any person walking down the street. We may have different dreams and different backgrounds, but in the general scheme of things, we make up humankind.
Unfortunately, centuries of brainwashing into gender-specific behavioral modifications have turned us into a militia of conformists, condemning anyone who strays outside the lines of what “women” and “men” are supposed to do.
And this is why we are powerlifters.
As female powerlifters, we become rebels with a cause – gaining strength for ourselves and for women who have surrendered to live a “man’s world” way of life. With every lift we make, we indirectly make a statement, showing everyone that women are strong, too – that strength does not discriminate. Our strength does not care of our race, gender, sexual orientation, past, present, future, our favorite TV Tuesday lineup, or whether we enjoy kale and cookies for breakfast. Strength is what teaches us to become more disciplined, more patient with ourselves, to reflect, to analyze, to observe and to forgive ourselves from failing, over and over again, until we succeed.
Our physical strength is not just for show – it is a mere physical manifestation of who we are as individual people, inside and out.
Our cultural communities may not realize that being a powerlifter isn’t just to become physically strong – it’s a statement for us to show other Asian women who have conformed into gender-specific roles that they can also be STRONG and WOMEN – that the greatness of our strength does not make us any less of a woman, no matter what society or culture tells us. Strength has many faces, and it appears through us and from within all of us in all different forms and sizes.
People may still make off-the-wall comments about women and lifting, but these can be easily brushed aside – they may have been raised in another country and another time where women were more traditional, and it’s easier to accept that. They may not understand the reasons why we lift, but that’s okay – our strength is a badge of honor that we will not allow to be compromised.
As Asians who powerlift, we flex our muscles to slowly change the course of gender-confirming ideals, one deadlift at a time.
Chen, S. (2002, October 16). Asians On A Different Obesity Scale. Retrieved from CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/asians-on-a-different-obesity-scale/
Henderson, J. (2015). Portrayals of Asians in Film and Television. Retrieved from Ithaca College Library: https://library.ithaca.edu/sp/subjects/asianfilm
Karen Maquilan is a a female lifter of Filipino descent, based in New York, New York.